Is Writing Well Still a Plausible Way to Make a Living?

By Jack Limpert

It’s harder now to find good feature writing jobs at newspapers and magazines—the digital revolution continues to weaken print’s advertising and circulation bases, cutting revenues, pages, and jobs.  And it’s harder to get a decent advance to write a book printed on paper. It is easier to get published—just not in print. Kindle singles are  popular, and Blurb has bought HP’s MagCloud with the aim of making it easier for a writer to publish an e-book.

But can you write well in the digital world and make a living?

Dick Babcock edited Chicago magazine for 20 years, has successfully written novels that became printed books, and recently has written Kindle singles that sold fairly well. I asked him: Can a good writer make $50,000 a year doing e-books?

His answer: “Very few can make that much. Every now and then someone posts a story or book that gets wide pick-up, but I think that is very rare. I doubt the overwhelming majority of e-book writers make more than a few dollars.”

My note back:

“Maybe being a good writer increasingly will have to be an avocation–you”ll need to earn real money doing something other than writing unless you marry well. It’s hard to see how and where the digital world is going to support good article and book writing. Most of the writers I know in digital journalism jobs have to write short and often.

“I’m in touch with more than a few longform writers who can’t find work. The Washingtonian once kept eight or nine of those writers working and now the magazine has three. Maybe we should have appreciated all those ad pages more than we did.

“Is something similar happening on the book front? Big names still can make big money but are fewer non-big names making enough to live on? If you were 30 and wanted to build a career writing good newspaper-magazine features and books, could you do it?”

Dick’s answer:

“I agree it’s very troubling. I worry that the artform you and I both love—the narrative magazine article—will fade away because no one can afford to write it and the outlets will disappear. I sometimes think that the journalism business lived too long on the golden goose of advertising and the public got used to free reporting—Americans never learned to recognize the labor and cost required to acquire news and create stories. (Imagine if the price of a Model T had been hugely subsidized because the exterior was plastered with ads.) The Internet, with its crazed ‘information wants to be free’ sensibility, only accelerated the problem.”

I then asked Bill Mead, a longtime wire service, newspaper, and magazine journalist, how he saw it. Bill has successfully published books in print and recently wrote an e-book. His mostly light-hearted response:

“To my surprise, a friendly e-book publisher (Absolutely Amazing eBooks, Shirrel Rhoades) cheerfully took on my family memoir Come Back, Moo, a bio of my exceptional grandfather. ‘A non-celeb bio,’ he said. ‘l’ll publish it but it won’t sell much.’

“He was right.  But he got it listed on Amazon Kindle ($3.99) and other platforms. He’s now agreed to use the Amazon connection to publish a paperback edition. I’m afraid to ask him why; I can’t imagine that he foresees profit. All this has cost me nothing, and it’s been great fun. You should read the five-star reviews, all written by friends (one looks like it may have come from a stranger).

“My royalties so far total about $60. E-books are great.  Print-on-demand publishing is great. But there’s little or no money for the author. I’m a retired guy and wrote for my pleasure—I wasn’t expecting to make much money.  For anyone writing for a living the equation is much tougher.  Used to be, it was hard to get a book published. Now that part is easier but making money is harder as ever.”

“I’m writing other memoir stuff; mostly recollections of an old reporter. I’m doing it on a blog—OldManMead—which is another way to get your work seen on computer screens without making any money. I’m getting deft at that.”

Comments

  1. Folks,

    This pessimism is unwarranted, in my view. I’ve been earning a good living for about 10 years now, since leaving BusinessWeek. I have a new book out next week (“Do Fathers Matter?”, FSG), I blog for the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, and I freelance for newspapers, websites, and magazines. And my wife does the same.

    No, it’s not easy. But when was it ever easy? My first newspaper article, written long before the rise of digital news, paid me $12. Is that the time you are referring to–when it was so easy to make a living?

    • Paul, you’re a sample of 1. I’m a Freelancer myself and have a damn hard time finding any steady work at all, despite some of my articles approaching a million views in just a few hours. Having BW on your resume definitely helps you get your foot in the door. Most of will never have that, as big print media just isn’t looking to hire.

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